When I was about 20, some friends and I drove out to Vegas to see the Grateful Dead. It was their first time playing Vegas in many years, and I’d never seen them live. I’m not a Deadhead by any stretch, but it sounded like an adventure, so I went.
We took a ’69 Volkswagen bus — I know it sounds cliche, but that was the guy’s ride. And yeah, we had to push-start it, like in Little Miss Sunshine.
There were maybe six or seven of us. The plan was to find the cheapest place in Vegas and rent a room for two; then everyone else would pile in and take various spots on the floor. It was all very Marx Brothers. Except for the tie-dyed shirts and stuff.
Anyway, we stopped at state line to ride the Ferris wheel. Seemed like a good idea at the time. You know, until the operator decided to mess with the kids and stop the wheel while we were at the top. Seriously, what was up with that?
After 20 minutes or so, the wheel got moving again. The operator claimed mechanical failure, but nobody bought it. Besides, we didn’t care; we had more important places to be.
We eventually arrived in Vegas and found a motel. Some random place off-off strip with eggshell-colored walls. It may have had a pool, I don’t remember. It was the sort of place whose details wouldn’t stick with you for any appreciable period of time. Like eating breakfast at Denny’s. It was the motel equivalent of Denny’s. Sure, we’ll go with that.
So, we all crammed into the room. Then we wandered around town a bit, none of us legal, none of us really digging the Vegas vibe. Mostly we said hey to other passing Deadheads who weren’t digging the Vegas vibe either.
Next morning we cruised over to Sam Boyd Stadium for the show. We parked the bus (I’d tell you about the parking lot, but I don’t have time to write a book just now) and made our way into the stadium. People had set up a makeshift volleyball court in the middle of the floor and were playing on it. First time I’d ever seen that at a concert. (My scene at the time was heavy metal shows at Long Beach Arena, where the crowds were… a little less happy, shall we say.)
One of my friends brought brownies to the show and sold them for $1 a piece. She explained up front that they were just brownies, with nothing added, but nobody believed her. Imagine their disappointment…
Carlos Santana opened the show. What I remember about his set is this: He wore a yellow bandana on his head. Santana is a terrific guitarist (if a tad repetitive at times), and I should remember more about his show than his headgear, but memory is a funny thing.
Santana’s bandana sticks in my mind because when we got back home (yes, I’ve skipped the Dead show; that’s not the point of this story, but assume it was good) I wrote an essay about it for a composition class I was taking at the time. In fact, it was the final for this class.
Professor Thompson had exposed us to all kinds of unusual literature — John Berger, Peter Elbow, Raymond Federman — and encouraged us to push traditional boundaries in our own writing. For the final, she challenged us to write something that ran in direct opposition to our normal tendencies. In my case, this meant abandoning my normal rambling “style” (you’re soaking in it) in favor of a minimalist approach.
When I say this was a final, it was really a final project. I worked on the piece over the course of an entire semester. I kept extensive notes, submitting those notes weekly and meeting with Professor Thompson several times throughout the process to discuss my progress, possible directions the work might head, and so forth.
I showed her several revisions at various points. The essay started out around three pages long. Then I got it onto a single page, then to 150 words. By the time I submitted the final version, I’d whittled it down to 70 words, using different font sizes to convey meaning.
The essay, which didn’t look anything like what I would’ve called an essay, discussed differences in perspective. It focused on a series of moments where I watched Santana through a pair of binoculars and then removed the binoculars — maybe 30 seconds worth of life — and how details that were obvious in one environment may have been misconstrued or missed entirely in another. (Hence the yellow bandana, or as I came to call it, “banana bandana” — say it with me, “Santana’s banana bandana.” Hey, I was 20, cut me some slack.)
The paper earned an A. Professor Thompson even suggested that I submit the piece for publication. It really wasn’t that good, but I appreciated her encouragement.
I also appreciated her insistence on pushing us in different directions. Federman may not seem radical nowadays, but at the time, when we were stuck reading Thackeray (and poking pencils in our eyes), he was quite the breath of fresh air.
The lessons learned from that class — question the status quo, reject lazy thinking, attempt the impossible (or at least the ridiculous) — remain with me to this day. That and Santana’s banana bandana.